The Oscar winning ’12 Years a Slave’ has brought slavery into the spotlight once more. Since our trip to Bunce Island I have been thinking about the slave trade from Sierra Leone. I found a fantastic resource www.slavevoyages.org which lists all known slave voyages and is searchable by various criteria. This can be time consuming! You can also make some attractive graphs, but unfortunately I couldn’t find a way to export those, so I have only imported the tables below as an example of what you can discover. I found the number one destination for slaves embarked along the West African coast around Sierra Leone was Jamaica, followed by Cuba and Santa Domingo, with South Carolina in fourth place, followed by Grenada and, confusingly, Sierra Leone! Some ships must have been coastal vessels gathering slaves from ports along the coast and bringing them to a central point such as Bunce Island.
This is an old drawing of the slave fort and a Google map image of the fort. ‘A’ is the male slave yard (the female yard is below the trees towards the wall), B is site of the main building, C the rough perimeter and D is the ‘last walk’.
Table 1: Slaves shipped from Sierra Leone
|Total slaves||Total voyages||Average||Standard deviation|
|Slaves embarked *||115274||580||198.7||106.1|
|Slaves disembarked *||99632||564||176.7||96.4|
|Percentage of slaves embarked who died during voyage *||114||10.6%||17.1%|
|Length of Middle Passage (in days) *||110||50.1||19.5|
|Percentage male *||92||64.2%||11.3%|
However, when I refined the search to only embarkation ports in Sierra Leone most slaves were landed in Jamaica, followed by South Carolina, Santa Domingo, Barbados and Grenada. So the large number of slaves bound for Cuba must have been from either Senegal, Guinea ports or Liberia. Slaves did not always ‘go quietly’ and many mutinies happened within sight of the coast – their last hope before losing touch with their homeland. Many are described here. Perhaps the most famous was Amistad, which was made into a film by Stephen Spielberg.
Table 2 only includes slaves embarked in the area of Sierra Leone and shows the peak slaving period being 1751-1800, with a dip in the years of the American War of Independence (or Revolutionary War) 1775-83 during which the main trading nations were occupied elsewhere!
Table 2: Slaves shipped from Sierra Leone showing area of disembarkation
|Europe||Mainland North America||Caribbean||Spanish American Mainland||Brazil||Africa||Totals|
[table 1 includes some small islands so has different totals to Table 2]
Table 3 below shows slaves embarked all along the coast from Senegal to Liberia and this shows an early trade to the Spanish American mainland peaking around 1576-1625 and a later trade to Brazil which peaks 1776-1825 and the Caribbean trade, which tails off from Sierra Leone, but continues from the surrounding countries. This is probably due to the impact of British naval presence around Sierra Leone.
Table 3: Slaves disembarked from West Africa (Senegal to Liberia) by destination
|Europe||Mainland North America||Caribbean||Spanish American Mainland||Brazil||Africa||Other||Totals|
Whilst the slave trade (at least the importation of African slaves to British colonies) was outlawed by the UK Act of Parliament of 1807 and in the same year USA outlawed the international slave trade, slavery in the British Empire was not abolished until the later Act of 1833, in the French colonies in 1848 and USA 1865. Slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888 and Cuba 1886. Table 3 shows that the later years of slave export from Sierra Leone were to Brazil and the Spanish Mainland, once the other destinations became off limits.
After abolition the UK and US navies were active in stopping slave vessels, which became increasingly armed and disguised as merchant traders. The small colony of Freetown, formally adopted as such in 1808, became the base for the Royal Navy’s West African Squadron tasked to stop the slave trade. Unfortunately for the slaves rescued, their point of origin was not considered that important. The primary aim was to return them to ‘Africa’, so for example, a group of Congolese were taken to the new colony of Liberia established in 1820, even though it was a long way from their ‘home’. Many of the returnees who came to Freetown in its early years were Yoruba or Igbo in origin, from what is now Nigeria. At least back on their home continent they were once again at liberty to settle and live as free people.
However I discovered, on a recent visit to the National Archives, that slavery in the Protectorate (the interior of Sierra Leone, beyond Freetown and the peninsula which became the formal colony) was not abolished until 1928! This anomaly occurred because although the Protectorate was taken under English law in 1898, the Frontier Police were not allowed to interfere in ‘cultural matters’, which included slavery. There is considerable correspondence about cross border trading of slaves from Liberia during the early 1920’s in the National Archives. So it took 120 years from the first abolition bill being passed until the people of Sierra Leone were technically free from slavery, which is more than surprising given the reasons behind the founding of ‘Free’town, and, as mentioned above, the fact that it was the base for ending the slave trading!